Oregon’s RARE Program Helps Young Professionals

By Michelle Harris

August 26, 2021

Katie McFall was in the middle of a career transition when she came across the Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE) program in her job search. Founded in 1994, RARE is part of the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research and Engagement. A federally funded AmeriCorps program, RARE provides assistance to Oregon’s rural areas by placing young professionals in rural communities for 11 months. While living and working in these communities, members help assist Oregon’s rural areas by developing and implementing strategies that drive economic support through historic downtown revitalization, destination development, agritourism and renewable-energy projects.

“I had previously looked at potentially joining the Peace Corps, another AmeriCorps program, but nothing really quite fit all the buckets since I was looking to get into community and economic development,” says McFall, a former RARE member who was placed with the Willamette Valley Visitors Association and now works there as a full-time development coordinator.

RARE partners with different organizations such as Travel Oregon, Oregon Food Bank and the Oregon Main Street program. Partners play an essential role by helping fund community projects and providing members with training and professional development throughout their term. McFall, who was placed under Travel Oregon to aid in destination development for the Willamette Valley region, has found RARE to be a pivotal experience both professionally and personally. “Your network is really large, and you’re working with all types of different businesses and entities, which makes RARE a really special opportunity. It’s just a network of young professionals who are looking to grow and have their impact around the state,” she said.

Every year the RARE program recruits dedicated participants to help develop and market tourism in rural areas, many of which rely heavily on tourism for economic growth. Projects range from building recreation-based infrastructure in rural areas — such as developing visitor-friendly facilities like restrooms and bike-cleaning stations along bicycle trails — to building regional food trails and implementing cultural-heritage tourism.

“What we’ve really honed in on with our DMOs [destination management organizations] is bringing a boots-on-the-ground type of capacity to the destination development arena. And for rural Oregon, tourism is one of those economic development generators,” says Titus Tomlinson, program director for RARE. “It really takes the voice of the community into account, while also helping build up the next generation of movers and shakers of community and economic development professionals.”

For young professionals looking into tourism careers that extend beyond hospitality, the RARE program provides an opportunity to explore other areas within the industry. Members work with small businesses, county commissioners, local leaders, and parks and recreation to help build infrastructure and marketing tools within rural communities that have a positive impact not just on the economy but on quality of life for residents.

“I think it’s important as far as broadening that conversation of tourism more as economic development and what it means for local communities,” says Alana Carollo, executive director of Eastern Oregon Visitors Association (EOVA). A RARE alumna, Carollo worked with the Oregon Main Street program in La Grande, where projects involved long-term planning and stakeholder engagement to help restore the historic downtown center. “The dedication that members bring to the table has been a huge asset for rural communities, not just in Eastern Oregon but across the state,” she says. “It’s really about being that conduit of information, that resource, and providing that added capacity not just for the region but for communities and partners as well.”

Kate Harbour, who is currently participating in RARE as outdoor recreation and trail development coordinator for EOVA, is thankful for the opportunity to work on both regional and local projects across the board. “I am helping build EOVA’s capacity to develop, market and manage Eastern Oregon’s outdoor recreation assets … through fostering networking and collaboration between trail groups in the region, working with land managers to identify challenges and opportunities, and responding to community feedback about problem areas in the region. I have met tons of great people working across the region, and I know that is a network I will carry forward with me after the program.”